Story By Amy Geiszler-Jones - Photos By Kacy Meinecke
Wichita Chief of Police Gordon Ramsay believes strongly in the concept of community policing – particularly in the community part.
“Police alone aren’t the answer,” said Ramsay, who became Wichita’s top cop in January after more than two decades of policing in Wisconsin and Minnesota. “The community has to be involved. That’s really what community policing is about. It’s about being one with the community – officers on foot, officers on bikes, officers getting out of the car and having positive interactions and not always in enforcement mode.”
He wants people in the community and the officers under his command to have experiences like he had in Duluth, where he spent most of his youth and policing career – growing up next door to a cop who took Ramsay on ride-alongs as a teenager and showed him the good a police officer can do and then developing long-lasting friendships with citizens on his own bike cop beat.
“I knew them on a first-name basis, would laugh and joke with them and get invited to the weddings, even today, of the friends I made,” said Ramsay, who worked his way up from a beat cop to Duluth’s police chief in 2006.
Born in St. Louis, Ramsay was 8 when his parents moved to Duluth. At age 20, he started his police career in Wisconsin and later returned to the northern Minnesota town.
Here in Wichita, it’s not unusual for Ramsay to respond to calls with his officers and visit with neighbors.
“I’m wired to problem solve and fix things,” Ramsay said. “Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a bad thing – like in my marriage, just ask my wife of 19 years, “ he adds, laughing.
“Ultimately the police issues that blow up are not always a result of just police issues. Usually it’s all these other social disparities – housing, education, unemployment and medical – that come together. So we need to lead our way out of this and be leaders. These issues play into crime and other issues that we deal with.”
It’s important for police to engage in the community in positive ways, he said, like having the SWAT team dress up as superheroes and rappel down the side of Wesley Children’s Hospital during its grand opening. “Our guys have to practice that kind of stuff anyway so it counted and it was a really great thing to see the kids’ faces. It’s changing a mindset. I want my staff to think about doing things for the community like that.”
He’s not afraid to start conversations about some tough issues, too, if it will improve things – like discussions about policies regarding public forfeiture and offenses related to driver’s license suspensions, allowing police officer candidates to have less-than-stellar records and developing a Citizens Review Board like the one he helped bring to Duluth.
When he’s not responding to calls or touting inspirational acts of his officers – like an officer who replaced a stolen bike for a teenager – Ramsay is out meeting with various people, from Gov. Sam Brownback about employment program information that police can share through community meetings to local activists who want the voices of the communities of color to be heard.
Ramsay and his police department attracted national attention in July, when hundreds of stories about the First Steps Community Cookout brought together nearly 2,000 people in Wichita – law enforcement, leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement and residents. It was actually the second such cookout of the summer – and it was followed by four more than primarily focused on youth – among Wichita law enforcement and the community. The timing of the First Steps cookout, however, came on the heels of a local peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in response to killings of black civilians by police officers elsewhere in the country.
The news stories more than likely led to an invitation to the White House, but the timing wasn’t right for Ramsay to make the visit. White House staff called him on a Wednesday, wanting him to meet President Obama on a Friday, the same day he was scheduled to officiate his brother-in-law’s wedding.
“It had been on the books for a year. I couldn’t just leave my brother-in-law hanging out there. … Some people thought I was being disrespectful but it was really that I didn’t want to be disowned from my in-laws,” he said.
“Every so often police chiefs get invited (to the White House). The president does it fairly regularly so I hope I get another opportunity,” Ramsey said. He’s personally tried returning the call to explain the situation but the White House staff member’s voicemail has been full.
“To me it’s an honor so I don’t want to come off as being disrespectful.”
While he looks for ways for his officers to engage with the community and work with government and nonprofit agencies to affect change, there are things we in the community can do, too, he said. Get to know your neighbors and look out for one another, call in tips to help solve crimes and volunteer with youth mentoring and after-school programs, for starters.
After all, he pointed out, the mission and vision of the police department is closely aligned with what community members want: “safe neighborhoods, where kids can play and families can work and people feel safe and comfortable and not have to worry about being a victim of a crime.”